Updated: Jan 30, 2020
By: Barbara Peterson - January 2020
Mindi Messmer has been working tirelessly for years to help prevent cancer and chronic disease-causing contaminants from polluting our drinking water, air, and soil. Years ago, she could have kept her head down and continued with her job as a hydrogeologist evaluating data. If she did, she would have acted as most do: working, filing her reports, and leaving it to others to take the risk of going public with the harm that she saw occurring to Seacoast New Hampshire residents. But she didn’t. Her moral compass pointed to acting on the public’s behalf, and that’s exactly what she did.
In 2014, Mindi identified a cancer cluster in Rye, NH. She gave her report and met with a wait-and-see attitude from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). When she found that they tried burying the report, she had a decision to make: continue in her profession or make waves and risk her career and her quiet life as a scientist, wife, and mother. She chose the latter. Two years later, she and State Representative Renny Cushing formed the New Hampshire Water Alliance to address concerns of water contamination. Additionally, Mindi is a member of the New Hampshire Restoration Board (RAB), which was established by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. The RAB is an advisory group made up of both government and community members who examine restorative efforts at petroleum and trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination sites as well as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).
Educated and trained as a hydrogeologist, with 30 years of experience in the field as an industry consultant, Mindi has the expertise required to understand the problems of water contamination in our New Hampshire communities. Her job entailed evaluating PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), for industry reports. PFAS are manufactured chemicals used in both commercial and household products designed to resist heat, stains, and oil and water.
Although considered safe for decades, they have been found to cause serious health risks including cancer, harm to the immune system and hormone levels, and the normal growth and learning abilities of infants. Mindi is in a position to understand the health impacts these contaminants can have on people because, in addition to her undergraduate degree and professional knowledge, she graduated this August with her M.S. in Clinical and Translational Science from Georgetown University.
One project Mindi is working on is getting the Coakley Landfill cleaned up. The Coakley Landfill Superfund Site is located in Greenland and North Hampton, and borders Rye. The Site received industry and municipal waste for 10 years, starting in 1972. And for three additional years, it received incinerator residue. In 1983, the state received a complaint about the Site’s impact on the quality of the area residents’ drinking water. After tests were completed, contaminants were found in many people’s wells, the ground and surface water, and in local wetlands. As part of the remedy, most homes were connected to public water supplies. Furthermore, actions were taken to isolate the contaminant sources and to put a cap on the landfill. Monitoring was also instituted to help ensure no further damage occurred.
In 2016, PFAS were found in one of the monitoring wells. The Department of Environmental Safety (DES) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted tests and declared that there were no dangerous levels of PFAS or other contaminants. However, residents were unconvinced and they continued to question the official reports. In 2018, due in large part to the work of Mindi Messmer, abnormally high rates of cancer were found and it was attributed to the Coakley Landfill. Mindi sponsored a bill to the state legislators requiring the DES to conduct and report on tests of PFAS contamination at landfills and hazardous waste sites. She and Representative Cushing continued their legislative work because, in spite of the efforts to stop the leaking of hazardous pollutants, the Landfill was continuing to leak. Most recently, the legislature, with the help and support of Messmer and Cushing’s NH Safe Water Alliance, sent a bill to the desk of Governor Sununu that requires the Site put a stop to seemingly endless monitoring and testing and start engaging in active cleanups.
Another project Mindi is involved with is as an advisor to Merrimack’s advocacy efforts against Saint-Gobain. The company, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics is located in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dangerous levels of harmful chemicals have been found in residents’ wells in the towns of Merrimack, Litchfield, Bedford, and Manchester. The State of New Hampshire filed a class-action law suit against Saint-Gobain, and the suit is pending in the US District Court, to be heard some time in 2020. To protect residents from any further harm, Mindi is working with activists there.
She and Representative Cushing and the New Hampshire Water Alliance have educated the public about PFAS and other water contaminates in a film series they host. They worked with other groups, including NH Sierra Club, Toxics Action Center, League of Conservation Voters in NH, the UCS, and the Conservation Law Foundation, to show the documentary The Devil We Know to audiences in different towns across the state. The documentary is a shocking and eye-opening account of companies such as DuPont who have been using harmful chemicals, such as C8, in their production of everyday items most of us have in our homes. Evidence indicates that DuPont and others knew about the damage these chemicals cause, such as cancer and birth defects, but denied it. To this day, they continue to deny it and infect our environment with their poisons. Additionally, government agencies meant to protect us do little to stop these harms, in part because their hands are tied by state and federal laws that protect corporations and commerce, and in part because their primary concern is on supporting corporate industries rather than the health of individuals and ecosystems. This movie and others in their film series have helped build coalitions of advocacy groups to fight against corporate pollution and environmental destruction.
In another role as educator, Mindi was invited to speak at Philips Exeter Academy before an international audience of K-college level educators. Her talk focused primarily on the PFAS, arsenic and lead in our water, and the Coakley Landfill. The event was so successful, PEA has asked her to speak again to educators as well as environmental justice attorneys, and she was also invited to speak in California, Florida, and Vermont. Educating the public about the risks and real harms caused by pollutants to our water is a vital part of what Mindi has done and continues to do. Without becoming aware of these issues, the public will not be equipped to put a stop to it and do what is needed to ensure we have safe water, soil, and air.
The work that Mindi does it twofold. She helps educate the public on dangerous toxins and how people can use the regulatory system to push for safer levels of chemical input into our environment. She also works directly with legislative and other decision-making bodies, such as the Pease Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), to pass policies and laws that impose far stricter regulations on industries and corporations that operate in our state. The Pease RAB was formed as part of the Air Force’s efforts to bring to the table community members with regulatory agencies and government officials, all stakeholders in restoring our community from toxic pollutants. The goal is to find solutions that restore our community’s ability to provide a safe environment in which to live and raise our families. Issues such as drinkable water, healthy wetlands, and edible shellfish are discussed, and remedies sought. In addition, in June 2018, Mindi wrote and sponsored a bill that was signed by Governor Sununu with a Republican supermajority. This bill requires the state to enact stricter regulations regarding PFAS and air emissions with Saint-Gobain.
New Hampshire has the highest rates of pediatric, esophageal, breast, and bladder cancers in the country. Additionally, we have some of the highest rates of liver and thyroid cancers. Clearly something is wrong. We need to educate ourselves on the dangers of toxins infiltrating our groundwater, soil, air, rivers, and oceans. We should learn how our communities are being poisoned, what impact those poisons have on our health, and what we can do to stop industries from continuing to contaminate our environment. Mindi has taken on this Herculean task, both at the legislative level and as a grassroots activist. It’s important that we all look to people like Mindi who work in cooperation with others so that we can, as whole communities, come together and do what it takes to protect our inalienable right to life, free from the poisons that cause birth defects, disease, and death.